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You are here: Home > Online Articles > Second-Language Programs in International Schools



Second-Language Programs in International Schools

By Maurice Carder


Second-Language Programs in International Schools
Spending a lifetime in the same career is becoming rare. However, that was my plan when training to become a teacher of English as a Second Language. After spells working in universities, British Institutes, and schools around the world, I spent a large part of my career heading the ESL and Mother Tongue Department at the Vienna International School, secondary. Building up the department and searching for the best ways to serve the needs of our many students led to involvement with various curriculum agencies and accreditation services. While such agencies and services first welcomed input from knowledgeable and well-qualified practicing professionals, I watched as they increasingly turned to the models of provision of the national education systems of the Anglosphere, especially those of England. This led me to dig deeper into how and why these entrenched models had developed. It was in the course of pursuing an EdD (International) at the University College London Institute of Education that, through massive amounts of reading and research, I began to find the answers I’d been seeking. Politics, I discovered, had played an important role in fashioning the modes of ESL provision in England and other countries of the Anglosphere. Initially, ESL students received instruction in specialized classes. Following a couple of racially-charged incidents in England, however, the government rethought this practice after finding itself accused of separating races in schools. Consequently, all students were integrated into the same classes, and ESL—both as a term and as a program—lost favor. Teachers were now given the task of teaching ESL students while also ploughing through a curriculum designed for native speakers. The term “English as an Additional Language” (EAL) was introduced in 1997 and the concept of inclusion was promoted, where EAL students would receive “support.” Gradually, professional training for ESL was eliminated, and in schools EAL instruction and support became the purview of the SEN department, and taught by teaching assistants. Many differences exist between international schools and those bound by national systems. In the former case, quite often the majority of students are second language speakers of English; the host country language is usually not English; students do not have to integrate into the local community; they often return to their own countries and therefore have to maintain and develop fluency in their mother tongue; and their parents are usually from a high socioeconomic background, on a par with fluent speakers of English. Given these factors, a professional program of second language instruction is ideal for these students, alongside lessons in the mother tongue, wherever possible. Detailed long-term research shows that this is the key element allowing second language students to develop their English. Those responsible for curriculum and accreditation in international schools have often chosen to ignore these facts and have found it more convenient to follow national models of the Anglosphere, especially as a majority of the uptake in their programs is now coming from that home base. Maintaining the professional model best suited to international schools means fighting for survival. There is consistent pressure from “above” to adapt to prescribed models. Incoming directors are largely native speakers of English, schooled in the systems they themselves grew up in. In addition, providing “support” by bringing in unqualified ESL teachers is cheaper than staffing a department of professional ESL teachers, operating within a separate program that strikes some as flying in the face of efforts to achieve greater “inclusion.” A further marketing strategy has been to emphasize that a school only has “native speakers of English.” In fact, ESL teachers who have learned English as a second language often have deeper insights into how it is structured as well as greater empathy in teaching Second Language Learners than do mother-tongue English teachers. They have been through the same process themselves, and now belong to the majority of speakers of English worldwide, i.e. those who speak it as a second language. They are also said to speak more clearly. As Shin (2008) surmises: “Despite a great deal of training, non-native speaker teachers may be viewed as inadequate language teachers because they often lack native speaker competence in the target language and culture. However, non-native speaker teachers possess distinct advantages over native speakers, including a deeper understanding of learners’ first languages and an ability to explain second language features in ways that students can understand” (Shin 2008: 57). They also present more realistic role models, as second language learners, by definition, will never be native speakers. Readers who would like to see these issues discussed in depth can read the new Second Language Learners in International Schools, just published by UCL IOE Press. Maurice Carder is former head of the Secondary ESL & Mother Tongue Department at the Vienna International School.

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